Tuesday 23 January 2007

Down at the bottom of India

Train to Tirunelveli

The rickshaw driver did turn up and I arrived at the station in good time and for once my train was to come on platform 1. I made my way to the "Upper Class Waiting Room" for what I thought was going to be a brief wait. Ho ho, the train was an hour late and meanwhile the mosquitoes were having a rare old time. Luckily a couple understood English and reassured me that I had the right train when it finally drew up, and what's more a young man actually helped carry my bags to an empty seat while we waited for the conductor to allocate berths. One of the benefits of being over 60 is that I am ensured a bottom berth and finally crawled into it just after 2am.

In no time at all it was unfortunately 5.30 am and we had arrived in Tirunveli. I climbed down (literally - Indian trains have two very steep steps which can be precarious with a heavy rucksack on your back) and followed the crowd down what must be the longest platform in India, over the bridge and once again into the melee that meets one outside a railway station.

I was the only European in sight and so a natural target. I was immediately accosted by a taxi driver and negotiated the price of 450 rupees (a fiver) to take me the 25 km trip to the temple at Thiruppadaimarudur (impossible to pronounce and my driver did not read, so had to show my piece of paper to the assembled crowd).

Temple at Thiruppadaimarudur

We set off in the dark and it was rather eerie driving along almost traffic free roads, although people were already up and busy opening stalls or standing around at tea stalls. The road was very rural: lots of potholes or total disappearance of tarmac, and very little traffic. I bounced up and down in the back of the Ambassador, which had seen better days; its suspension hardly existed and the diesel fumes were a bit off-putting.

When dawn came, it cast a lovely hazy light on the rice paddy fields, banana plantations and coconut groves. I really must try to get up early more often...

When we finally arrived at Thiruppadaimarudur it was little more than a single road leading up to the temple, which turned out to be a little gem. Perhaps my mood was influenced by the almost total absence of people. Apart from temple workers washing the floors and a couple of priests getting ready for the day, there was just a handful of worshippers, mainly old men, purposefully doing their circuits round the various shrines.

I'm getting accustomed to the dark inside Hindu temples (a total hindrance for photographers) and was soon peering happily at the carvings on the lovely Cholan columns.

I was looking for the way up to the east tower, where there are supposed to be some magnificent medieval carvings (only Rough Guide mentions this place) but nobody spoke even a smattering of English. One toothless gent tried to be helpful, but never quite grasped that my Tamil is non-existent.

Finally I found the rickety ladder up to the next level. Its balustrades were broken, but I took a deep breath and climbed it - only to discover there was yet another precarious one and perhaps even more. Given my vertigo and hips, I very sadly decided it was too risky to continue. In a sense this was a failed expedition, but I had enjoyed being back in rural India and had enjoyed wandering round the temple.

On the journey back the road was filling up with oxen carts, bicycles and the occasional bus or motor bike.


I had hoped to stop off at the only hotel given any rating at all in Rough Guide and hire a room for a few hours to recover from the night, but it was full. So after breakfast (I left half, I can't cope with the size of portions they give me), I hired another car to take me to the other temple, at Tiruchendur, 60 km to the south east. The return trip cost 740 rupees (8 quid) and was in Tata - a smaller car, but in good nick. Still, cash flows are evidently low for all - once again we stopped at a garage and I handed over half the money for fuel.


How I wish I could have an English speaking driver to answer my questions: why, for example, were the bananas grown in huge plantations, invariably surrounded by coconut groves? Are there small banana farmers, or are they all working for some banana multinational? I stopped at one point to photo women working in the paddy fields. They spotted me and waved cheerily - and posed, which was NOT what I had wanted.

Very few villages, but plenty of interesting posters beside the road, including one which said "Long live classical divine Tamil". We did pass two colleges of education, one of physical education and one for women, all institutional concrete blocks plonked down in the middle of nowhere (which reminded me so of my school in Nigeria). Not much fun for the students.

The temple, originally built in the ninth century by the Pallavas, but heavily restored this century, was a most extraordinary affair, quite unlike all the others.

I approached it down an extremely long - over half a km - covered walkway packed with pilgrims souvenirs, flowers for the temple, and a wide range of plastic toys, balloons and what looks like pink candy floss. This is pretty standard for the temples here, but what made it feel different was that the temple is right beside the sea. I felt half transported onto Brighton beach! Beside the temple, crowds of people were enjoying themselves on the beach and quite a few were jumping into the surf. And there were 'professional' photographers taking family photos.

The temple is dedicated to Murugan, Shiva's son, and is one of the holiest shrines to him in India. So the place is packed with pilgrims, but I get the feeling that a pilgrimage is also a family outing, as everywhere there were clearly families enjoying a day by the sea.

Inside were the familiar carved columns, many badly damaged by the sea and neglect, or covered with oil and garments. I enjoyed trying to take photos of blackened statues in a totally impossible dark light because all around were encouraging me, including a party of jolly, fat priests. As usual I spent a lot of time responding to requests for photos. But I rather hesitate to snap the more extraordinary scenes of prostrated figures in fervent prayer. I also decided not to pay to go into the inner shrine; I didnt feel up to another dose of garlands, white ash and tipping priests.

Lunch was in a rather dodgy looking hotel. I went upstairs, along a pink corridor with dark, windowless hotel rooms on either side, into an equally dark dining room. (Actually all the hotel dining rooms go in for bad lighting.) I was the only customer and was wathced by the usual cheery crowd of three or more waiters, none of whom spoke English. My vegetable pulao was very tasty, though I only ate a third. I have failed to get over the concept of a small portion, and I hate leaving food.

Then back to Tirunveli, where I am marking time (five hours!) before my evening train takes me on to Trivandrum, capital of Kerala.

Well I have successfully squandered some time getting money out of a cash machine (always a bizarre experience as the ATM machines are invariably in a guarded glass cubicle, with only one person allowed in at a time) watched by the assembled crowd outside), bought a new spiral notebook (for 30 rupees), have spent a couple of hours at the computer, and am about to return to the hotel where I left my bags for a looong cup of tea.

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